Prowling our living rooms: the reality of AFL grand final day in locked-down Melbourne | Jonathan Horn

By on October 21, 2020

In lock-downed Melbourne, it was hard to figure out whether time was flying, or stalling. It was like being in a casino. It was like jet lag. Judging by the state of the people I puckered my eyes at on my daily walks, most of us were in the same boat. We were subject to the longest lockdown in the world. We were jittery, snappy and only just hanging on.

What’s a person to do in such circumstances? Adopt a puppy? Embark on a prison-like home training regime? Ponder the epidemiological expertise of Rebecca Judd and Gary Ablett Snr?

For many of us, football helped. It provided some sort of relief from the hourly inhalation of death, snark, psychobabble and conspiracy theories. It was a spluttering, jam-packed and strangely comforting season of football. It was a logistical miracle of a season. At various times, they had have offered long odds on it going ahead. Tall, patrician, bug-eyed and normally a calming, likeable figure, AFL boss Gil McLachlan looked like a beaten man. The league had been groaning with money. And whoosh, they were out on their backsides. McLachlan likened it to a boat merrily traversing the seas, only to barrel into the mother of all icebergs.

But they pulled it off. It the middle of a global pandemic, they yanked a sport out of the city that obsesses over it. They upended hundreds of young men, many of them new fathers, as well as support staff, families and umpires. They accommodated them from one corner of the country to the other. They crammed 33 matches into 20 days. They oversaw a competition that retained people’s interest, rated its socks off and provided considerable solace for those in lockdown. For the clubs, the focus was on not falling off the cliff, getting through the winter grind, and emerging from the Covid torpor with a semblance of a shot. Most Victorians adopted a similar policy.

Footy is supposed to provide a bit of joy, inject a little drama, and engender a sense of belonging. But in the darkest depths of lockdown, it didn’t seem to mean as much. It didn’t stick in the marrow. It was more abstract. It was played under sunny Queensland skies, and we watched from heated lounge rooms. It was played in front of crowds, while we adhered to an 8pm curfew. Some of the games were ghastly. I wrote a piece bemoaning the state of the modern game, and regretted it as soon as I filed it. I sounded like a miserable old drainer. You had to suspend judgment this year. You had to cut the players, the coaches and the overall product a considerable amount of slack.

The MCG will remain empty this weekend with the grand final taking place at the Gabba in Brisbane. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Footy’s absence was most palpable as we ticked into spring. Normally the city would be heaving. Finals would be upon us. But September was silent. Melbourne was a tired, depressed and divided city. It was a city having a collective nervous breakdown. The 7:30 Report finished with a heart-wrenching closing montage of an empty city, with a choirboy singing at St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the closest I came to completely losing it during the entire pandemic. The boy’s voice soared as the camera panned over an empty CBD, an empty MCG, empty laneways, empty shops, empty gardens. It drummed home what once was, what we’d taken for granted, and what was now denied to us. Perhaps it was the church, perhaps it was the voice. But it felt like a funeral. It felt like grief.

As the footy season ground on, the song remained pretty much the same. The Demons still withered under the heat. The Tigers still played with brutal efficiency. Geelong still wouldn’t go away. Essendon still sent its supporters spare. Elsewhere, the news was grim. Left and right were at each other’s throats. Every two-bit comedian, former ruck rover, interstater and influencer had a searing hot take. The American president was trolling the world. A young autistic boy went missing and died in dense bushland. Dean Jones, a hero to so many Victorians my age, died the next day. My own childhood hero – and the most talented footballer I’ve seen – emerged from half a century of inscrutability and five-word sentences with a rambling, utterly incomprehensible rant about the illuminati and the Freemasons. His son, a far more agreeable individual, entered an isolation hub on the Gold Coast. They’ll probably end up erecting a statue of him outside the MCG. While they’re at it, they should confiscate his old man’s phone.

Mercifully, things improved. The number of active cases fell. We were no longer subject to curfew. I had my first swim in seven months. I no doubt resembled a man who had just been rescued from the surf. The parks around the MCG were colonised by picnickers necking beers, laying out rugs and keeping varying degrees of distance. The footy finals were compelling. My team, who had played stodgy, cautious football for years, had its swagger back. The crowds in Brisbane were raucous. Everyone was suddenly playing for keeps.

Lockdown and football do strange things to grown adults. I watched Saturday’s preliminary final in a certifiable state, flanked by an increasingly concerned rescue greyhound. There has to be a better way to live one’s life. By the first stoppage, I was railing against the umpiring, the commentary, the abundance of man buns and – for all I can remember – the Freemasons. The dog retreated to his bolt hole. Geelong progressed to a grand final.

Gary Ablett

‘They’ll probably end up erecting a statue of Gary Ablett outside the MCG.’ Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

In Melbourne, not surprisingly, it hasn’t felt like grand final week at all. The Brownlow medal barely registered. There has been no long lunches, no tortured pleas for tickets, no barbecue invitations. In 2017, it seemed like every pub, laneway, warehouse, henhouse and outhouse in Richmond was painted yellow and black. Now there are just a few half-arsed attempts at Halloween decorations. There’s a public holiday on Friday, but no parade. On Saturday, they’ll wheel out Mike Brady – or someone fitting his description – to sing to an empty MCG.

That night, there’ll be no-one burning effigies on Swan Street, no imbeciles stomping on bonnets. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. For all the fun and frivolity, there is often an ugly undercurrent to grand final day. Police reckon it is the worst day of their year. There is always a spike in domestic violence incidents. If we had been unleashed after five months in lockdown, it would have been bedlam. It would have completely stuffed everything. Instead, we’ll watch from the couch. We’ll be prowling our living rooms. Such are the times. Such is the sacrifice.

The favourites have had an odd, disjointed year. For three or four years, we have heard a lot about “Richmond Man”. Richmond Man picks up rubbish after games, meditates, embraces his vulnerability, bares his soul and cracks dad jokes at three-quarter-time. But Covid has sent us all a bit bonkers. And men, even Richmond Men, are what one writer once called “a wandering archipelago of random impulses”. Gropes, kebabs, benders, and barbs – they’ve been a bit all over the shop. None of them were particularly heinous crimes. And the football field forgives a lot.

They are still a mighty side and the most admirable of clubs. Their opponents are mature, hardened and have everything to prove. Their football has looked a bit joyless in recent years. September after September, they have been the backdrop to some hitherto middling team finally getting its act together. This year, they’ve embraced the shambolic and are dishing up some of the best football they’ve played in a decade.

This looms as one of the great grand finals. It feels like the past few seasons have been building to this. It feels like the end of the longest winter. Some people reckon Victorians take football too seriously. Some reckon this season doesn’t count. Some reckon this premiership will come with an asterisk. The hell it will.

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